On the front line: Stephen’s story

As a senior nurse on the intensive care unit, Stephen Cutler is on the front line caring for people who are critically ill with the coronavirus. This is his story.

Stephen Cutler, senior nurse, intensive care unit, St Thomas' Hospital
Stephen Cutler, senior nurse, intensive care unit, St Thomas' Hospital

"It’s just like shell shock, it hits you all of a sudden"

Stephen has been working at St Thomas' Hospital for 17 years, but nothing could have prepared him and his colleagues for what they are facing, as he explains:

“Obviously, the patient numbers have increased, I've never had to look after two ventilated patients before. Then you are scared to go to work, and even being scared to come home from work.

“It’s a shock. You know, you've been sent to a Covid-19 unit, you've been moved down there- then suddenly, you're on the front line. And you're seeing this disease you hear everyone talking about that's killing lots of people around the world. It’s just like shell shock. It hits you all of a sudden.”

Managing the mental load on and off the ward

For Stephen and his team, switching off from work during the pandemic is incredibly difficult on a personal level, as he tells us:

“When you come home, that’s added stress. You can’t really debrief or tell people at home what it’s been like, because you can’t really describe it. And you don’t want to, because you don’t want to relive the fear, so of course, that adds pressure.

“And you’re scared to bring anything home, so you start showering at work which also adds time on to getting home. Mentally I tried to leave everything at work, but there's no way of coming down from that. So the cycle home feels like the best thing ever, because it’s the only ‘me’ time.

“For me, the hardest thing was not being able to come down for a long, long time, weeks, if not months. It's been very difficult, and that put a strain on my relationships. But you find ways to manage it.”

Wellbeing zones: people are there who genuinely care about what you're doing

But staff like Stephen shouldn’t have to find coping strategies alone. Which is why, thanks to charitable donations, Guy’s and St Thomas’ has set up temporary wellbeing zones and specialist psychological services. This support is helping staff to cope with the mental and emotional challenges they face, as Stephen discovered:

“I’d had probably one of the hardest shifts I've ever had in my life. In the morning I came downstairs and an email went round about this wellbeing zone, and initially I thought I'll just go and get a free cookie or a banana, something like that for a bit of a boost to get me through the day.
“Then I got there and it wasn't just a free cookie. People are there who genuinely care about what you're doing. I saw my colleague, Eve, when I got to the wellbeing zone, and she said: ‘Is there anything I can do for you, are you ok?’ We had a bit of a chat, and she got me some accommodation at the Park Plaza in central London that night, because I was working the next day, and I wasn't going to get out until a lot later.

“I also sat down and spoke to Roisin Fitzsimons, one of the senior nurses who asked questions that only another nurse could ask. She gave me some hand cream because my hands had been washed so much, they were torn to shreds. It felt like I was being cared for again.”

Finding a safe space in a crisis

The wellbeing zones also give staff of all levels the chance to check in with themselves, away from their responsibilities.

“I’ve been since, and being there I didn't have to be a hero,” said Stephen. “Because I'm a band six, and I'm very senior at my job - I’ve had to look after and help out junior staff around me because they're all scared. So, I didn't have to go down there and be that person, I could just go be Steve. And If I wanted to cry in a room, I could.”

What the public support means to staff

Public support from donations that helped to open the wellbeing zones, as well as messages of support, help to boost morale and keep staff going during the toughest shifts. Stephen says:

“People come up to you and say things like ‘we support you, we're with you’. At first I didn’t know what to make of it, I felt embarrassed, I was only caring for two people but I don't really know how to start thanking them. Even the food and drinks being there is amazing, I didn’t need to think about making dinner at that time or going out to buy food and reading a newspaper took your mind away from the moment. I feel like people at the wellbeing zone care, and they're there for us as a team. Thank you!”

Keep our NHS workers going

Any donation you make today will help to keep this invaluable wellbeing support going, through the pandemic and beyond. This includes:

  • Making the wellbeing zones, which have been such a lifeline for staff, permanent across our hospitals.
  • Offering a comprehensive psychological and spiritual support package, designed to meet the needs of the diverse workforce. This will aid ongoing and long-term trauma recovery.
  • Ensuring that, at whatever time of day staff may be working, they have access to complimentary coffee, tea and healthy snacks to help them recharge, boost morale, and feel valued and appreciated.
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